“Step into the shoes of whomever we cast as villains”

This interview (via e-mail) was done after I noticed an incredible number of hate comments by readers of the newspaper PÚBLICO, where I was an editor and senior writer, every time there were reports on Israel-Palestine. Roi Ben-Yehuda, a Jew, and his friend Raquel Evita Saraswati, a Muslim, both living in the United States, replied to the questions that I’ve sent them as a simple questionnaire. (Read more…)

Israeli Arabs next to Israeli Jews holding national flags, Jerusalem, May 15, 2010 @Reuters

Israeli Palestinians next to Israeli Jews holding national flags (Jerusalem, May 15, 2010)
© Reuters

Can you, Raquel Evita and Roi – a young Muslim and a young Israeli, who are friends – explain why there is so much hatred, and why we must choose a camp – Israeli or Palestinian, but not both?

BEN-YEHUDA: Suffering, contrary to some romantic ideals, is not ennobling. All the wars and violence have left scars on our people. Our hearts, like eggs in boiling water, have become hardened. It’s not that Israelis and Palestinian are intrinsically lacking in compassion; it’s just that the reality on the ground has made it all but impossible to recognise each other’s humanity.

Yet my friendship with Raquel Evita, along with many other Muslims, continually reboots my faith in the possibility of reconciliation and coexistence. As experience creates enmity, it also creates possibility. The more positive contact Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims have with one another, the closer we will get to peace from the ground up.

As for the idea that we must be polarised into either pro-Palestinian or Israeli perspectives, I see that as an unfortunate but reasonable response to conflict. In times of crises, when people’s lives and identities are under threat, it is understandable that their cosmopolitan worldview (if it ever existed) collapses upon itself.

But we must recognise that creating positive and negative dichotomies often contributes to the problem. I say that if you have to choose camps, choose to be with the peacemakers, no matter which side of the “border” they live behind.

alestinian teenager Muhammad al-Salaymeh is mourned during his funeral in the West Bank city of Hebron, 13 December. Israeli border police occupying Hebron shot the teen dead at a checkpoint on his birthday. @Issam Rimawi / APA images)

Palestinian teenager Muhammad al-Salaymeh is mourned during his funeral in the West Bank city of Hebron. Israeli border police occupying Hebron shot the teen dead at a checkpoint on his birthday
© Issam Rimawi |APA

SARASWATI: I believe that sometimes hate is the only way people know how to channel their pain, the only way humans process their suffering.

I don’t believe that people want to hate. Yet when a young Palestinian knows nothing but statelessness, nothing but the shame of a checkpoint, and nothing but the sight of bodies bloodied; and when a young Israeli sees a bus trip as imminent death, watches a child his own age strap ammunition to himself to murder and destroy in the name of God—then reason is lost.

Reason, which would drive a human heart to compassion, to reconciliation, to mercy and justice, cannot be.  In the words of writer Salman Rushdie: “The world is incompatible, just never forget it… ghosts, Nazis, saints, all live at the same time; in one spot, blissful happiness, while down the road, the inferno.” No people know this better than the people of Israel/Palestine. They grasp for peace, for simple decency, and yet the evil of destruction is ever-present.

My friendship with Roi is one of the most important relationships of my life. In him, I see a person whose life has not been spared the ugliness of violence but whose heart has refused the toxicity of hate. So many of us talk about the “other side”—we speak of the nameless “Palestinian” and “Israeli”, yet this abstract knowing is not enough.

Our media and our politicians demonise our counterparts, and we all too often follow even this most obvious manipulation of our minds and hearts. What we, the new generation of Muslims and Jews calling for peace, must do is this: we must make the conversation our own. Our minds must not be battlefields trampled by old thinking and simmering hate.

We must reject the very idea that our religious identity or ethnicity determines our “camp.” We can meet one another – virtually, even personally – and re-imagine this region. Beyond the desire for reconciliation, we can and must take action for peace.

Are Israeli and Palestinian leaders addicted to violence?

BEN-YEHUDA: I hate to disappoint some of your readers, but Israelis and Palestinians, leaders included, don’t get up in the morning and say, “I need my fix of violence.” That would make them monsters, not human.

Most Israelis and Palestinians engage in violence due to a perception that they are under threat, and the belief that they are acting in self-defence and for the cause of justice. It is not, therefore, a sadistic impulse to cause bloodshed. At the same time, it is clear that far too many Palestinians and Israelis have an unhealthy confidence in the efficacy of violence.

We have both placed too much faith in what I call the algorithm of violence: the notion that force is the optimal method for resolving conflict. This faith has led many to tragically dismiss peaceful forms of conflict resolution. While the violence seen in Gaza may in the short-run produce a temporary calm, it will never bring an end to this conflict.

As American musician Michael Franti put it: “You can bomb the world to pieces, but you can’t bomb into peace.” The real challenge facing Israel/Palestine today is how to transform people’s faith from the algorithm of violence to the algorithm of peace. I see my job as a writer to find creative and thought-provoking ways to produce this transformation.

The son of the Jewish settler Eviatar Borovsky touches the body of his father during his funeral at the village of Kfar Hasidim, near Haifa, Israel, 30 April 2013. Borovsky was allegedly stabbed to death by a Palestinian Fatah operative from a village near Tulkarem earlier on 30 April at the Tapauch Junction in the northern West Bank. @EPA/ABIR SULTAN

The son of the Jewish settler Eviatar Borovsky touches the body of his father during his funeral at the village of Kfar Hasidim, near Haifa, Israel. Borovsky was allegedly stabbed to death by a Palestinian Fatah operative from a village near Tulkarem, in the northern West Bank
© Abir Sultan | EPA

SARASWATI: I’m not sure that Israeli and Palestinian leaders are addicted to violence as much as they are unable to see beyond violence as a means to solve the conflict. When parties feel attacked – as both legitimately do – violence often seems to be the only viable response.

This has been the case since the dawn of mankind, and people of every ideology have, at some point or another, used violence when they perceive themselves to be at risk. In this case, diplomacy has been nothing more than a placeholder between acts of violence.

Even the most supposedly meaningful negotiations have been almost theatrical in their presentation. People living on the ground – often literally! – can’t really look, once again, at foes shaking hands a world away and instantly believe that their neighbour will not kill them. What we need is a shift in ideology. Both sides paint themselves as victims, and in fact both sides are victims to a degree.

It is unjust to say that Palestine “wants” to be seen as the victim, when it is this very claim of victimhood that has driven Israel to target Gaza. Both sides are home to victims and the victimised, the powerful and the powerless.

Rockets and suicide attacks are not offering a state to Palestinians, but negotiations have also been a fiasco. Israel is demanding security and peace, but is expanding settlements into the West Bank and is repressing every attempt to peacefully demonstrate against the occupation. What advice will you, Raquel Evita, give to Palestinians (and other Arabs and Muslims)? And what advice will you, Roi, give to Israel? And what advice will you, both, give to us – the rest of the world?

BEN-YEHUDA: My advice to everyone is to increase their capabilities for empathy. President [Barack] Obama got it right when on a visit to Israel he said, “If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I am going to do everything in my power to stop that. And I would expect Israelis to do the same.”

This is what the world needs to do before it calls Israel a “cancer among the nations”. I challenge your paper’s readership to ask themselves how much restraint they would show if a political/military organization would bombard their cities with missiles on a daily basis. How much tolerance would they have as their towns and cities become paralyzed with fear?

At the same time, I would also challenge Israelis to do the same with the Palestinians. To imagine what it is like be under occupation, or to live under siege. To look at the pictures of the dead and wounded, to stare into the faces of the oppressed, and imagine their own families. Imagine that these people, just like them, had plans; that they too wanted to live and be free.

I would make this mental exercise part of the education curriculum in Israel. So my advice to everybody is to step into the shoes of whomever they cast as villains. Doing so may not provide the same high of righteous indignation, but it will make it much harder to dehumanize and physically/culturally destroy the other. The battle for Israel/Palestine is not a good vs. evil scenario, and treating it as such is doing no one a favour.

Palestinians in the West Bank city of Ramallah protest against the Palestinian Authority’s negotiations with Israel and coordination with its military and police forces on 28 August, days after Israeli forces shot dead three young men in nearby Qalandiya refugee camp. @Ahmad Al-Bazz / ActiveStills)

Palestinians in the West Bank city of Ramallah protest against the Palestinian Authority’s negotiations with Israel and coordination with its military and police forces, days after Israeli forces shot dead 3 young men in nearby Qalandiya refugee camp
© Ahmad Al-Bazz | ActiveStills

SARASWATI: The welfare of man is reliant on our ability to communicate across the self-imposed boundaries of religious identity, so therefore I must reject the idea of speaking only to the “camp” this question would have me address.

This false dichotomy is the essence of conflict in every case. I am an American Muslim who has never stepped foot on the soil of Israel/Palestine. However, the lives in Israel/Palestine are connected to my own – not just because my lineage shares blood with theirs – but also because the welfare of Palestinians, of Israelis and of human beings the world over – is impacted by what happens in that region. Therefore it is our collective responsibility to make positive change.

As a woman, I have experienced the kind of violence only the worst and most vile of men can perpetrate, yet I do not hate men. I have seen death, I have seen disease and desperation – yet I do not resent God. I cannot claim to know the life of a Palestinian or an Israeli, but I do know that we are greater than the sum of our anger and the scars of our pain.

The world would be wise to intervene in material ways – economy, security, diplomacy – but we must also highlight the voices of those Palestinians and Israelis who sincerely call for peace. Images of hate serve only our most destructive aims – a masochistic appeasement of the worst of ourselves. It is far more uncomfortable to see the enemy’s real humanity.

I call for us all to take personal responsibility in bringing a new generation of peacemakers forward. May we be not just heard, but may we be taken seriously. It is up to us because the old guard has proven itself useless. The lives of our children are worth far more than what we are doing to one another today.

If you were living in Palestine or in Israel, not in New York (Roi) and in Boston (Raquel), would your opinions on the conflict be different?

BEN-YEHUDA: I have lived in Israel for half of my life, and I return there frequently. My political outlook matured and solidified in Israel, and I don’t think that living there today would change anything in that respect. If I were a Palestinian living in Palestine, I would like to think that I would be part of a some kind of non-violent response to the occupation. I know that this is easier said than done, but that is how I would like to envision myself as a Palestinian.

SARASWATI: I think most of us would like to think of our values as timeless – stronger than circumstance and greater than our surroundings. However, honesty demands the recognition that our values – and the opinions resulting from them – are very much connected to what we’ve lived.

That having been said, I’d like to believe that I’d be a lover of freedom, of peace, of reason and justice – regardless of my birthplace. I know that many Palestinians, and indeed many Muslims – love these values as I do. Unfortunately, many cannot express their views in the way that I do. Whether by blatant, ruthless restriction by their superiors – or as a result of utter devastation from the outside – many Muslims simply do not have the freedoms we enjoy in the United States and in the West.

I must also acknowledge that I, as a Muslim woman, benefit even more significantly from these liberties. While prejudice in the U.S. is real and even vitriolic at times, my citizenship entitles me to certain freedoms I’d never have under Sharia law or in most Muslim countries.

It becomes not just my privilege, but also my responsibility to use those freedoms for the betterment of humanity. I sincerely believe that if I, as someone with enormous privilege, do not use that very privilege for the benefit of those without it – I am worth less than the air in my lungs.

Israeli settlers protest against the Palestinian bid for statehood, outside the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, near the West Bank city of Hebron, September 20, 2011. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will address the United Nations on Friday, September 23, 2011, in a bid for Palestine to attain the status of a full member state in the UN. @UPI/Debbie Hill

Israeli settlers protest against the Palestinian bid for statehood, outside the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, near the West Bank city of Hebron, September 20, 2011. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will address the United Nations on September 23, 2011, in a bid for Palestine to attain the status of a full member state in the UN
© Debbie Hill | UPI

Roi Ben-Yehuda is an Israeli writer based in New York, and a regular contributor to Ha’aretz, Jewcy and France 24.

Raquel Evita Saraswati is a Muslim, activist and scholar, whose main interests lie in religion and human rights, conflict resolution, and the reconciliation of culture with modernity.

Raquel and Roi

© Roi Ben-Yehuda and Raquel Evita Saraswati

 

This article was originally published in the Portuguese newspaper PÚBLICO, on 6 January 2009, and reprinted under license, in two parts, by Common Ground Service on January 8, 2009 and on January 15, 2009

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